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New NASCAR job offers no honeymoon for Helton

Dealing with the death of Dale Earnhardt gets Mike Helton off to a tough start as president.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


On the threshold of NASCAR's most significant season in recent memory, Mike Helton got the promotion of a lifetime.

A dream job.

"I like the title," Helton, who became NASCAR's president in November, said in January. "It means more power, more responsibility. Well, I don't want to call it power because that's not really what it is. I think it's responsibility."

The first non-France family member to hold the position in the sport's 53-year history discovered almost immediately how much responsibility the job entails.

With more than 200,000 fans attending and a national television audience watching the biggest race of the season, Dale Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and died from the same type of skull injury that killed three NASCAR drivers last season.

In a matter of moments on Feb. 18, Helton's dream job became a nightmare.

"It's a trying time, but this is what we do for a living," he said after the Dura Lube 400 on Feb. 26 at North Carolina Speedway. "That's life in general. You have to pick up and go on."

Helton has been a fixture in the Winston Cup garage since 1994 when he was director of competition. He was named the sport's chief operating officer in 1998. As part of his promotion in November, he is one of five people who comprise a newly formed board of directors headed by Bill France Jr.

The 67-year-old France has battled an undisclosed form of cancer the past two years. His father, Bill Sr., founded NASCAR in 1948 and was president until handing the reins to Bill Jr. in 1972. Deciding to take a less active role and restructuring upper management of the multi-billion dollar operation, France became chairman of the board. His brother, Jim, son Brian, daughter Lesa France Kennedy and Helton round out the board.

"I think he's knowledgeable, street smart and a quick learner," France said of Helton. "I've been out of action a good part of last year. I think by and large he did a good job. You've got to remember this: I can make a decision and don't really have to worry about anybody else. He's got to make one and somewhat worry about me getting nervous. ... Like anything else, he shouldn't do anything but get better."

Helton's promotion to president was the culmination of a roundabout 20-year journey that began in Bristol, Va., a tiny town that straddles the Tennessee border.

After graduating from John Battle High School and King College in Tennessee, he worked as an accountant before turning to a career in sports radio. The latter provided an opportunity to go to Winston Cup races and resulted in him being hired as public relations director at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1980.

Five years later, he was promoted to general manager of the track. he stayed there until 1986 when he left to become director of promotions and market development at Daytona International Speedway.

He was named general manager at Talladega Superspeedway 18 months later. Within two years, Helton was promoted to vice president of International Speedway Corporation and in 1989 was named president of Talladega Superspeedway.

"I never could imagine starting in Atlanta (that he would advance this far)," he said. "I thought that was a pretty slick trick. I could've lived out my career in Atlanta. I could've lived out my career in Talladega and been very happy. But I don't want to go back."

Helton replaced former NFL lineman Les Richter as NASCAR's director of competition in 1994, holding that position until France tapped him to take over day-to-day controls of NASCAR as its chief operating officer in February 1998.

Helton became a recognizable and respected figure in the garage for his ability to work through and resolve problems quickly.

"You can go in that guy's office, ask him a question and you might not get the answer you want, but at least you get an answer," driver Rusty Wallace said. "He's a really cool guy to work with. He understands the sport. He's down in the trenches with us. He goes to every single race."

Even without Earnhardt's death, the 2001 season would've required an unflappable focus from its new leader with Dodge returning to Winston Cup for the first time since 1985 and a $2.47-billion television rights agreement with Fox, FX, NBC and Turner kicking in.

"One of the things about Mike is his ability to master a business issue and a racing issue and understand those things equally well," said George Pyne, who took over the day-to-day business aspects of the sport and reports to Helton. "He can do just as well in the boardroom as he can in a trailer in the garage."

Helton's goals and visions before the season stretched beyond the short term.

"There's two big goals," he said. "One is, internally operate with an absolute, clear, unified effort so that everybody in the industry knows that NASCAR is unified in its efforts. There should be no question by anyone in this industry that the competition departments, marketing departments, the broadcasting departments are working for one goal.

"The other is to have an environment, have a lifestyle, have a NASCAR 25 years from now that is as enthusiastic and as exciting and as dynamic as it is today. Don't let it lose any of its pizzazz. Don't let it lose any of its history. But at the same time, adjust. That's tough. That's hard to do."

Maybe harder than the first couple of months he has been on the job.

"I think every day brings a little bit more closure," Helton said. "We'll press on. It's the way things have to work whether we like it or not."

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